Europe helped Syria's weapons programme
05 June 2013, 08:49
Amsterdam - Syria, defeated by Israel in three wars and
afraid its arch enemy had gained a nuclear arsenal, began in earnest to build a
covert chemical weapons programme three decades ago, aided by its neighbours,
allies and European chemical wholesalers.
Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to
set up a programme on its own, but with backing from foreign allies it amassed
what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles of nerve agent in the
world, Western military experts said.
"Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at
the outset of its chemical weapons programme, but the understanding now is that
they have a domestic chemical weapons production capability," said Amy
Smithson of the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies in
Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
As Syria's civil war enters its third year with 80 000
dead, chemical weapons are reported to have been used by the government of
President Bashar Assad, and there are also fears they could fall into the hands
of militants seeking to destabilise the region.
As a result of the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria
sought to counter Israel's military superiority.
Non-conventional weapons have already been used in the
The late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used chemical
weapons such as mustard gas and other nerve agents during the 1980s, including
the killing of 5 000 Kurds in Halabja, during the war with Iran.
Syria's ally Iran is accused by the West of seeking to
develop an atomic bomb, which it denies, while Israel refuses to confirm or
deny whether it has nuclear weapons.
"Syria had to have something to stack up against
Israel," Smithson told Reuters.
UN human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had
"reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts of chemical
weapons had been used in Syria.
They had received allegations that government forces and
rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by
Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined
the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely
destroying their stockpiles.
Syria does not generally comment on its chemical weapons,
but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that it had them.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi told a news
conference the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but
could use them against foreign forces.
While it is relatively easy to produce small amounts of
chemicals, scaling up to megaton quantities of precursors needed for weapons of
mass destruction requires long-term, industrial-grade processing facilities
with advanced equipment.
The first technology and delivery systems were most
probably obtained from the Soviet Union and pre-revolution Egypt, military
experts believe, while chemical precursors came from European companies.
To boost its own capabilities, Damascus set up the Scientific
Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), an agency with a civilian figure head that
was run by military intelligence.
It is "the best-equipped research centre in Syria,
possessing better technical capacity and equipment than the four Syrian
universities," the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a leading non-proliferation
group, wrote last month.
The SSRC, attacked by rebels earlier this year, oversees
chemical weapons facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Firaqlus,
according to the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
It set up facilities for blister agent, sarin, mustard
and VX nerve gas, the Centre said.
The agency is now headed by one of Assad's top advisers,
national security chief Ali Mamlouk, said Brigadier General Mustafa al Sheikh, a
Syrian army defector.
"The man overseeing the chemical weapons in general
is Ali Mamlouk, but effective control of the weapons is becoming
fragmented," Sheikh, who served for almost two decades in chemical weapons
units, told Reuters from an undisclosed location in northern Syria. "Assad
himself has lost overall command and control."
Mamlouk, on a list of Syrians targeted by EU sanctions
since 2011, was promoted last year to head national security after its chief
was killed in a bombing in Damascus.
Considered to be a member of Assad's inner circle,
Mamlouk is one of two Syrian officers indicted last August in Beirut for
allegedly plotting to incite sectarian violence in Lebanon. Efforts to reach
Mamlouk for comment were unsuccessful.
Sheikh said the arsenal is now in the hands of chemical
weapons-trained loyalists of Assad's Alawite clan, a Shi'ite offshoot sect, and
is being used for limited attacks that have killed dozens of rebels.
"Most of the chemical weapons have been transported
to Alawite areas in Latakia and near the coast, where the regime has the
capability to fire them using fairly accurate medium range surface-to-surface
missiles," Sheikh said.
Some chemical munitions remain in bases around Damascus,
and have been deployed with artillery shells. "It is a matter of time
before fairly large warheads are used," he said.
A US official, asked about Sheikh's comments, told
Reuters: "This is one concerning scenario we're taking a close look
Reports of use of chemical weapons in the battlefield
have become more frequent in recent weeks. A UN team of inspectors has been
denied access and has been unable to verify the claims.
The bulk of chemical and biological weapons production
technology came from "large chemical brokerage houses in Holland,
Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany," said Globalsecurity, a security
In the early 1980s, Syria mostly imported French
pharmaceuticals, some of them so-called "dual use" chemicals, which
could also be used for chemical weapons, it said.
A wide range of industrial chemicals with legal
applications, such as in agriculture, is also precursors for chemical weapons.
The most important precursors for sarin, the nerve agent
believed to have been used in recent fighting in Syria, are methylphosphonyl
difluoride and isopropanol.
None of the reports cited named specific companies as
suppliers. Syria has said it intended to use the chemicals for agriculture.
Securing raw chemicals on the international market became
more difficult in 1985, when suspect sales were restricted by the Australia
Group, a 40-nation body that seeks to curb chemical or biological weapons
through export controls.
Some experts say Damascus obtained supplies from Russia
and Iran instead, but Syria may also have turned to a network of illegal
traders using front companies to sell to Iran and Iraq.
Former Russian general Anatoly Kuntsevich was suspected
of smuggling precursor chemicals to VX gas to Syria, according to Globalsecurity.
He died in 2002.
While questions remain about the origins of Syria's
chemical weapons stockpile, an evaluation by the US government in March leaves
little doubt about the threat it poses.
"Syria's overall chemical weapons programme is
large, complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage,
production, and preparation," the director of national intelligence wrote.
It "has the potential to inflict mass casualties,
and we assess that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation
of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use
chemical weapons against the Syrian people."
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